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The 11 Best Modern Westerns

The 11 Best Modern Westerns

Indiewire has partnered with DIRECTV to present the television premiere of “Slow West,” which is available exclusively on DIRECTV and in theaters 5/15.

READ MORE: Sundance Review: ‘Slow West’ Starring Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee & Ben Mendelsohn

Unforgiven” (1992)

Perhaps the epitome of the modern Western, Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning epic “Unforgiven” is a melancholic meditation on the West, exploring its myths and its history through a dark and violent lens. The film is set in 1881, with Eastwood starring as William Munny, a retired outlaw who returns to the trade after years of settling down as a farmer. Celebrated for its moral ambiguity and noir atmosphere, the film simultaneously debunks and pays tribute to one of cinema’s most established genres by expertly juxtaposing violence and heroism, as well as courage and revenge. Principally noted for its anti-violence expression, “Unforgiven” went on to become the third Western to win the Academy Award for Best Picture and has since been admitted to the National Film Registry.

Django Unchained” (2012)

Messy, bold, raucously funny and curiously affecting, “Django Unchained” is quintessential Quentin Tarantino. Part homage and part subversion, it’s also an audacious reimagining of the spaghetti Western. Set in the Deep South during the antebellum era, the film centers on Django (Jaime Foxx), an African-American slave. He teams with Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German bounty hunter posing as a traveling dentist who buys him and then promises freedom in exchange for his help in collecting a large bounty. Characteristic for Tarantino, the movie is stuffed with visual and narrative references, not to mention classic actors associated with the genre like Bruce Dern. But it’s also a stylish, gory period piece in its own right, with Tarantino’s inventive original screenplay and Waltz’s scene-stealing supporting performance both going on to win Academy Awards.

The Homesman” (2014)

Tommy Lee Jones’ haunting and contemplative Western flew under the radar last year despite a stirring lead performance from Hilary Swank and a richly confrontational narrative. Jones inverts what’s typical for the Western by allowing women to drive the action. Set in the mid-1850s, “The Homesman” follows Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank) as she sets out to transport women in need of escape from pioneer life to Iowa. Realizing the difficulty of the journey, she hires a low-life drifter (Tommy Lee Jones) to accompany the her. Lensed beautifully by Rodrigo Prieto, the films tracks the group as they cross the Nebraska Territories marked by stark beauty, psychological peril and constant threat. Sneakily feminist and unrelentingly gritty, “The Homesman” is an embodiment of the modern Western.

True Grit” (2010)

The Coen Brothers had already gotten their feet wet in this arena with the Oscar-winning phenomenon “No Country for Old Men,” but even so, how they’d fare with such classic material was another matter entirely. Fortunately, their knack for droll humor and visual splendor meshed seamlessly with this infamously Western tale. In “True Grit,” 14 year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) teams with the aging, drunken U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to hunt down Tom Chaney, the man who murdered her father. Unlike “No Country” or the various other styles they’ve dabbled in, “True Grit” represents the Coens’ first true genre exercise. And through it, they string together a delightfully old-fashioned narrative and extract a breakout performance out of Hailee Steinfeld. 

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007)

Andrew Dominik’s moody, evocative “The Assassination of Jesse James” did Ron Hansen’s eponymous 1983 novel justice and then some. A deeply psychological and quietly unsettling Western, the film dramatizes with piercing specificity the relationship between James (Brad Pitt) and Ford (Casey Affleck), and what led to the infamous (and titular) killing. This is a movie that gets under your skin — from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ eerily unshakable score, to the magnificent camerawork of the great Roger Deakins — working as both a portrait of an outlaw and an exposition of masculinity in the process. It’s a tour-de-force in craft, most notably in Casey Affleck’s performance, which went on to win several critics prizes as well as earn an Academy Award nomination. Evoking stylistic Westerns like “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “The Assassination of Jesse James” is the new century’s definitive Western tonal poem.

 “3:10 to Yuma” (2007)

Roger Ebert said of James Mangold’s remarkable remake, “‘3:10 to Yuma’ restores the wounded heart of the Western and rescues it from the morass of pointless violence.” Indeed, this propulsive and star-studded modern Western pulls off an impressive feat, managing consistent thrills, a smart narrative and an effective re-imagining of the 1957 eponymous film (as well as Elmore Leonard’s original short story). As the story goes, notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) is captured, and Civil War veteran Dan Evans (Christian Bale), struggling to survive on his drought-plagued ranch, volunteers to deliver him alive to the 3:10 to Yuma, a train that will take the killer to trial. Both actors do visceral, intense work in this bracing two-hander, while Mangold’s vision is equal parts throwback and contemporary. But above all, “3:10 to Yuma” is an irresistibly exciting ride.

“The Proposition” (2005)

John Hillcoat (“The Road”) takes the Western to the Australian Outback in this brutally-tense account of loyalty, revenge and the quest for justice. In “The Proposition,” a lawman (played by Ray Winstone) apprehends the notorious outlaw Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce), and gives him nine days to make a fatal decision: Burns can either kill his older brother, or they’ll execute his younger brother. A sweeping moral parable, the film drew attention for its visual and narrative homages to the classic films of Sergio Leone, as well as its uncompromising effectiveness as a bleak mood piece. “The Proposition” broke out of the Australian cinema scene and garnered international recognition, with stateside film critics paying particular attention to the superb performances of Winstone, Danny Huston and Emily Watson.

“Meek’s Cutoff” (2010)

Kelly Reichardt is among the most consistently brilliant indie film directors around, so it should come as no surprise that “Meek’s Cutoff,” her stab at the Western, ended up as a rousing success. The film, loosely based on an 1845 incident on the Oregon Trail, chronicles the ill-fated journey of a wagon train, led by frontier guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood),  through the Oregon desert along the route later known as the Meek Cutoff. Reichardt’s calibration comes off so effortless and yet so refined, managing to tell a minimalist, character-driven story through the guise of a slow-burn Western thriller. Textured with a feel for the historical and the perspective of the contemporary, “Meek’s Cutoff” is that rare historical drama to feel completely lived-in and authentic. Carried by the marvelous, subtle performances of Greenwood and Reichardt muse Michelle Williams, this modern Western breathes life like no other.

Lone Star” (1996)

In “Lone Star,” John Sayles’ mysterious and carefully-unfolding psychological Western, the unearthing of human bones and a rusty sheriff’s badge in a Texas border town resurrects painful memories for Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper), a young lawman. Through an elegant study of past and present, the film draws Sam into an intricate, fascinatingly woven web of ethical, familial, and intercultural conflicts. “Lone Star” is a classically romantic, oft-despairing and ultimately tragic account of forbidden love, unavoidable consequence and the ghosts of the past. Sayles’ spin on the Western is profoundly humanistic, favoring interaction over pure action and emotional resonance over violent resolution. The result is a passionately-felt and wrenching watch, anchored by the sterling performances of Cooper and the late Elizabeth Peña. 

Dances with Wolves” (1990)

“Dances with Wolves” is the ultimate Western epic, a film of immense grandeur and historical depth. Set during the Civil War, it chronicles the exploits of Lieutenant John Dunbar (Kevin Costner), whose loyalties are put to the test after being accepted and embraced by a Native American tribe. Directed by Costner in a revelatory achievement, “Dances with Wolves” is considered a landmark for its revitalization of the Western epic. Sweeping, emotive and remarkably filmed, Costner’s cinematic achievement has been preserved by the National Film Registry as the quintessential modern American Western. It also won the Academy Award for Best Picture, especially notable since it was the first Western since 1931’s “Cimmaron” to win the big award.

The Rover” (2014)

“The Rover,” Australian filmmaker David Michôd’s follow-up to his acclaimed family crime saga “Animal Kingdom,” maintains the director’s firm tonal command even as it reaches into more richly ambiguous territory. In this sweaty, sun-caked piece of Aussie Western-noir, a hardened loner (Guy Pierce) pursues the men who stole his only possession, his car, capturing along the way one of the thieves’ brother (Robert Pattinson). The duo form an uneasy bond as they press on through the dangerous journey. “The Rover,” chiefly concerned with the economic devastation that’s come to be characteristic of the 21st Century, cleverly filters contemporary existential dread into a dirty, bleak and morally-minded Western template. Like many movies on this list, “The Rover” is more expressionistic than action-packed, but it still manages a distinctiveness through its confidence in silence and specificity in location.

Indiewire has partnered with DIRECTV to present the television premiere of SLOW WEST, which is available exclusively on DIRECTV. A bounty hunter (Michael Fassbender) keeps his true motive a secret from the naive Scottish teenager (Kodi Smit-McPhee) he’s offered to serve as bodyguard and guide while the youth searches for his beloved in 1800s Colorado. Find our more and how to watch SLOW WEST here.

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